Sarajevo: At the crossroads

I'm huddled underneath an umbrella on the corner of Franz Josef Street in Sarajevo. It's a decidedly ordinary looking avenue, with its neoclassical facades and neatly parked cars, yet it has an extraordinary ability to excite the imagination.

By Gavin Haines
Published 17 Jun 2014, 12:45 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 11:39 BST

That's because this is one of the great crossroads — literal and metaphorical — of modern history. It is the spot where, in 1914, the world, as our ancestors knew it, changed forever.

A nearby plaque struggles to grasp the magnitude of events that unfolded here, reading, rather prosaically: "From this place on 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie."

What it doesn't mention is that the assassination of Ferdinand, who was in Sarajevo to attend the opening of a hospital, was the trigger for the First World War, a conflict that helped shaped the modern world.

I survey the street and imagine a different version of events that day; Princip's gun misfiring, Ferdinand surviving. Had such scenarios played out, the Great War may never have happened. And without it there would have been no Second World War, Cold War or baby boom; and, quite plausibly, no me and no you.

Huddled underneath her own umbrella, my tour guide, Samra, tells me more about that fateful day 100 years ago.

"Franz and Sophie were not meant to be driven down this street," she says. "Their driver took a wrong turn and when he stopped to reverse the car, Gavrilo Princip came out of a coffee shop and shot them."

That coffee shop is now the Museum of Sarajevo, which has more information about that fateful afternoon in its exhibitions. Sadly it's closed today, so I leave it to Samra, a fountain of knowledge on all things Sarajevo, to explain more.

She tells me about the attempt on Ferdinand's life earlier that day, which was botched by a group of nationalists who were affiliated with Princip and driven by the same desire for independence from Austria-Hungary.

"There were seven of them spread along the road, blending in with the crowd that had come to greet Ferdinand," she says. "And when the archduke's car drove past one of them threw a bomb underneath it, but it exploded too late and blew up under the car behind."

The archduke was rushed away from the carnage and the would-be assassin, Nedeljko Čabrinovic, attempted suicide. But he made a hash of this, too.

"He drank poison and jumped into the river, but the poison wasn't strong enough and the river wasn't deep enough so he survived," explains Samra. "He was pulled out the river and arrested — that was a bad day for him."

The remaining conspirators fled the scene, convinced they'd missed their opportunity. A dejected Princip went to a nearby coffee shop. And then fate intervened. Franz and Sophie — who were on their way to the hospital to visit those injured in the blast — were delivered to Princip on a plate.

Seizing his opportunity, he ran out to their car, pulled out his pistol and shot the pair dead. It was a decisive moment in modern history. It was the first step towards the First World War. It was Franz and Sophie's wedding anniversary.

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